my name is gerda

One of my classes this year was called extension 2 English, and the entirety of the course was a writing project.

For mine, I obviously chose to write a short story. I wanted to write a retelling, I wanted it to be fantasy, and I wanted it to be young adult.

All three of these things apparently “marked badly” and I was advised to choose a different topic. I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t, because I really, really loved writing this story and it was a very different process to writing a novel.

Anyway, I ended up getting a good mark. Even if I hadn’t, I was still going to share this story with you guys, so I hope you enjoy it! This is part one (it’s 6,000 words, alright?) and I’ll post part 2 later on.

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A SORCERESS AND HER MIRROR – PART ONE
“Every tiny fragment retained all the powers of the original mirror; those windows showed only a soulless and bleak world.”
~ The Snow Queen

Once upon a time, a sorceress procured a mirror. A gift from the gods, spun from the sky-dew of Ygdrasyl, the Tree of Life.

It was a gift, but it was also a trick. The gods were envious of Mitgart, the human realm, for its laughter and its humanity. The mirror was intended for Mitgart’s ruin.

Some tales, whispered across the realms, said it was the most powerful object in existence. Some tales said that it had a life of its own. That it craved chaos.

That even the gods could not control it now that it had been created.

The mirror did not show the sorceress what she wanted to see – her face seemed grotesque, twisted, and her eyes dark. With a cry of anguish, she lunged forward and knocked the mirror to the floor, where it shattered into a thousand million pieces of glittering grit. The broken pieces sparkled up at her, taunting. You used to be like this, they seemed to say. You used to shine.

That was when the darkness arrived in Mitgart.

It never left, of course. Humanity craves chaos. It cannot survive without evil.

Over the years, the four winds of the world carried the pieces of the mirror. They became part of people’s spectacles, of beautiful jewellery. It made their faces grotesque, and their eyes dark, their hearts overcome with shadow.
‘And that’s why,’ Grandmother finished, in the dim light of the naphtha lamp, ‘You should always keep each other close, to make sure that you don’t have a sliver of enchanted mirror in your eye.’

I squinted at Kai. ‘Can’t see one.’

‘You don’t see it,’ said Grandmother crossly. ‘You’ll sense it.’

‘Do you sense anything?’ I said to Kai.

‘Nope.’
‘I suppose we’re good, then,’ I said. ‘We’re going to play in my room.’ I met Grandmother’s scowl with a grin, and we flounced away.

I didn’t think about the enchanted mirror again for a long time. Kai and I were focused on more important things – pretend games of world-saving and swashbuckling, mainly.

Grandmother was old and cautious, I thought.

And of course, Gerda would be wrong about that. But we’ll let her believe this for now. If it gives her some comfort, well, who can blame her for wanting to keep hold of that?

We should introduce ourselves. We are the women of Vondur, the princesses and the fallen girls of story books. We are the ones who fell foul of the sorceress’ mirror, who became corrupted by its influence. We have no beginning, we have no end. Evil is as eternal as good, and much more compelling.

Now we are trapped for perpetuity, a collective bound to continue the cycle, to lure other girls to the mirror’s influence. In short, our role is to denounce our humanity and continue the cycle.

And we are very, very good at it.

KAI AND GERDA
“They were such good friends that many people thought they were brother and sister.”
~ The Snow Queen

I wait in the snow for Kai so we can head home. The world around me is sugar-dusted, white as far as the eye can see. Through the archway of snow-draped trees is a glassy lake, beginning to freeze over. A white swan stares at me as it drifts slowly across it.

Kai’s late. Hurry up, I think, jigging on the spot.

It’s starting to get dark now, the glinting white vista taking on an ominous tone. When I look back at the swan, it is no longer white.

It’s black.

Heart pounding, I turn away and squeeze my eyes shut. You’re seeing things – it’s dark and scary and you’re seeing things.

When I open my eyes again, there’s a splash of colour in the landscape. The trees, branches bowed, partially obscure a midnight blue sled. I hear the snuffles of several reindeer and walk forward slowly, making sure to stay out of sight. It’s hard to tell what can happen in a forest like this. I’ll freeze if I stay out here much longer, but I need to see who steers the sled.

There. A woman.

And in front is Kai.

I lose sight of him for a moment, because it is impossible to look away from the woman. Save for the long black hair falling in curls to her waist, her face is so pale it would fade into the snow.

Kai, I want to shout, because as usual, he’s being beyond foolish.

But I’m frozen.

He climbs into the sled with the woman. Though he wears only a thin shirt and trousers, he doesn’t seem cold. His face is blank, as though…

Grandmother’s stories come rushing back to me.

As though he has a shard of mirror in his heart.

‘Kai!’ I scream.

My voice reverberates. I can’t explain the dread that fills me at the sight of his blank, empty face.

But my voice comes too late.

The sled moves away with not a sound, and Kai is gone from me.

I run home as quickly as I possibly can, my feet skating on the ice, my breath coming in white mist. My gasp of relief tumbles out as I open the door to Grandmother’s house. I dash to my room and gather my warmest coat, ready for a journey. But as I’m about to leave, Grandmother appears in my doorway. ‘Where are you going in such a hurry?’
‘I have to find Kai,’ I say breathlessly. ‘The Snow Queen’s taken him.’

She frowns. ‘No. Haven’t you listened to any of the things I’ve taught you? I’m not losing you as well, Gerda.’

‘I have to.’

‘You will not,’ she says, her voice so commanding, so terrifying, that I fall silent. But there’s something else in her voice – almost as though she’s scared. But that can’t be right. ‘Goodnight, Gerda,’ she says tightly.

Tomorrow. I’ll leave tomorrow.

When I finally fall asleep, a swan swims into my mind. A black swan.

You do not want to look for Kai, it says. Seeking him will destroy you both. In the end you will see. But it will be too late. That is your curse.

When I wake up I’m panting, and my face is wet with tears.

Kai and I are so close people often mistake us for siblings. I can’t give that up so easily.

In the morning, I wake up earlier than Grandmother, and I run. It seems strange that she wouldn’t take more measures to stop me. Maybe she can’t.

There are stories concerning the Snow Queen, of course. According to the Old Norse legends, she was born to a woman who had conceived the child out of wedlock. The woman left the child in the snow, hoping the girl would die. She did not.

The Snow Queen was visited by the Valkyries – in our legends, the Valkyries were paragons of virtue, the only reason humanity still existed. The child terrified even the most fearless of them.

And the story goes that the Valkyries cursed her, in an effort to save humanity from evil. Wherever she went, she would bring the winter. She would never feel warmth. She would be trapped inside herself, incapable of knowing true feeling until it was too late.

The curse only made her stronger. Snow and ice blanketed the North. Young boys disappeared from their houses, stolen by the Snow Queen.

But she could only steal boys who had a shard of enchanted mirror in their hearts.

And she could only break the curse if she put the sorceress’ mirror back together.

What she didn’t know, though, is that humans can’t live for long with a shard of mirror in their hearts. I need to find Kai soon or I’ll live to see him become a monster.

He would be better dead.

The Snow Queen shares many characteristics with the original sorceress. This is because, of course, the Snow Queen is a human construct. She does not exist. The real story is much more complex.

And much more dangerous.

THE FLOWER GARDEN
“What use are roses? They don’t feed anybody, or make anything.”
~ The Snow Queen

Golden light breaks through the darkness as the day dawns. After an eternity of winter – white sugar snow and bare brown branches – there are glimpses of green, and I see that I have happened upon a garden.

Red roses.

Yellow daffodils.

Green ferns.

On and on and on for as far as I can see and oh, if only everything was this bright.

A new face obstructs my view of the flowers. It is an ancient face, lines upon lines upon weathered lines. The eyes are jewel-bright and crinkled, and the mouth is turned up at the corners. A wide brimmed hat shades her face – it, too, is patterned with flowers.

She looks so kind, so unlike my Grandmother, that I begin to cry.

The woman envelops me in a hug. ‘There, there, my dear, we’ll find your Kai. You stay here for a while. You’ll be alright.’

And somehow, some way, the garden becomes my home for several days. Everything seems to have a flowing effect, though – my memory comes in pieces, as though I skip whole portions of the day. There are images of a warm house with a fire, the woman’s kind smile, always, always kind; the rich, heavy perfume of flowers that make sleep seem so easy.

But something – some whispering voice – makes me alert to the fact that staying here, staying dull and sleepy, is not wise. I must keep moving.

One day I venture outside of the gardens and onto a different path.

I don’t question it. I keep walking.

The path continues into a dark wood, away from the cheery bright glow of the sun.

As I get deeper into the woods, I see a sign hanging crookedly on my left.

The Aviary.

I can’t hear screeching, or cawing or clucking. If there are birds in this aviary they are silent.

It only takes two more steps to reach it.

It takes me much longer to realise what I’m seeing, to register my revulsion at the very sight.

The Aviary is a cage of hanging people.

Dozens and dozens of them, suspended by their feet from branches, fingers curled round the sharp wire. Great misshapen bats with no wings, no way to escape.

What is this place?

Please. Please don’t let Kai be here…

Kai. I’d almost forgotten about him. Now the old woman’s kindness seems false; a smoke-screen for her true intentions.

He is not here, the birds outside the aviary whisper to me. You must keep looking.

I can’t seem to move my feet. The blood. So much blood.

‘Why are they here?’ I say, my voice trembling, stomach heaving. I lean against a tree, suddenly not sure that I can do this. I squeeze my eyes shut but tears fall through.

The old woman collects them. Experiments on them. She tears out their hearts and looks for—

’Shards of enchanted mirror,’ I whisper.

Then one of them stirs. The only woman in the Aviary.

Gerda can be forgiven for thinking that there was only one woman in the Aviary. We are always there, watching her. Always one step away.

We are the old woman. We are her grandmother, though she came very close to eluding us.

We are everywhere.

THE HANDLESS MAIDEN
‘‘A dark mood spread across the continent…”
~ The Snow Queen

I scream.

Stumble backwards.

The woman is alive, but I don’t see how anyone here could be alive. And especially someone who has no hands.
Because at the end of each arm is a stump, and blood drips onto the once pristine snow. She is dressed in a…in a tutu. A white tutu. Black ballet shoes, with ribbons tied.

Her feet are still pointed.

A sob rises in my throat. I shut my eyes. Just once.

When I open them again, her elbows are raised, her lower arms swinging aimlessly. It is as though she is being dangled like a marionette. Slowly, as though she is underwater, the girl without hands is lowered to the blood-spattered ground. Her calf muscles are taut, and she remains on the tips of her toes.

Her head is raised, and her eyes are terrified.

It seems she is being controlled by a puppeteer, her legs moving forwards in a grotesque ballet. Her arms stay in front of her, still dripping sickeningly. Her eyes plead with me, and a single ink-black tear courses down her cheek.
Music starts inside my head and Grandmother’s stories come back to me. The trickster gods, the world, it works in mysterious ways, Gerda. It can turn you mad. Don’t listen to it, Gerda. Remember who you are.

No. No.

Please no.

I am Gerda. I am Gerda. I must remember that I am—

The music.

First the violin. Cello. The eerie high sound of the flute, and then the harpsichord.

How could I have thought that her dance was grotesque? Her feet move in perfect rhythm as she unlatches the gate of the Aviary and moves gracefully onto the soil.

Do I trust my eyes or my ears?

Neither?

What did I do to deserve this world?

The music stops, and the girl without hands falls. I jerk forward, like I too am attached to strings, and I catch the girl. The only sound is our breathing.

I try to put everything out of my mind. I do not want this nightmarish dance in my head. ‘I’m Gerda,’ I say softly.

Already the music has faded and I am myself again. But it’s a tenuous, threadbare connection. I’m shaking, confused – how can I possibly become anything other than myself?

‘I’m Ylin,’ she whispers.

‘Who did that to you?’ I say, as I help her up. ‘It can’t be the old woman.’

‘The Snow Queen,’ she says, and it is a voice so full of terror that I can’t help it – I shudder as well.

I walk with Ylin for an indeterminable time. Now that we are out of the flower garden, the landscape has reverted to winter. I measure time in the snowflakes, the fleeting snatches of fog-faded sun, the numbness of my toes as we tread endlessly through ice and snow.

Then the ground crunches in a different way.

‘Ylin,’ I murmur, for she has continued ahead of me, not realising. ‘Ylin, look.’

It’s a very small patch. Just a few tiny flowers. Their edges are covered in frost, as though a divine hand has used a piping bag to ice them.

‘Maybe she’s becoming weaker,’ I say, scuffing my boots over the daisies. I look back up at Ylin, and she’s smiling. It’s infectious. I smile too. But it feels like an empty victory.

It still feels like winter as we make a bed from leaves and moss. My brain’s messages to my hands are slow, and when I flex them, it takes an extraordinarily long time. Ylin and I lie side-by-side to try to conserve warmth.

‘Why do you think she does it?’ she murmurs, shivering.

‘Who?’
Though I know exactly who.

‘The…Snow Queen,’ she whispers.

‘She’s evil.’

‘Is she?’ I murmur. Is it her who is evil, or is it the world?

I can’t see her face in the darkness, but I have the strangest feeling that her eyes would have that wide, scared look.

‘What did you say your name was?’

‘Gerda,’ I say. After a long pause, I ask, ‘Have you ever seen a black swan?’

‘No, Gerda. Vondur doesn’t have black swans.’

I wasn’t imagining it. Her voice is scared. But this time, she is scared of me.

It is working. Slowly. We are influencing her. If she looked in a mirror now, her eyes would be dark. Her face would seem grotesque.

Her heart, though. Her heart is still full of Kai.

We must work on her heart.

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So what do you think? Ready to read part two? OH, and what’s a story you’d love to be retold?